AS people get older they do less but author Harold Stephens at 90 wants to do more.
A lot more: “I have six new book projects,” he says. And he’s not kidding.
He’s just published a new one, his 30th novel called ‘At The Oriental Bangkok.’
The 270-page non-fiction illustrated book is a rich collection of stories and photographs taken during the heydays at the 140-year-old legendary hotel.
Stephens and longtime friend Ponsri Luphaiboon, the hotel’s famous former public relations director, have woven a tapestry of magical moments that made the property “the Best Hotel in the World.”
This top award was bestowed by New York-based ‘Institutional Investor’ banking magazine for 10 consecutive years from 1981 to 1991.
“Then General Manager Kurt Wachveitl was credited as being the reason for winning that title year after year,” recalls Stephens. “But it was Ponsri who did much of the heavy lifting.
“She was the vital link to the VIPs and the hotel. She corresponded with them, became their confidant and she was able to get things done. That was why they came back again and again.”
Among those VIPs were Elizabeth Taylor, billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes, Elton John and Hollywood stars like Pierce Brosnan, Audrey Hepburn, Sylvester Stallone and Sophia Loren.
She took care of many film crews who stayed at The Oriental, among them Robert De Niro and Michael Cimino who shot the ‘Deer Hunter’ in Thailand in 1977. It won five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director in 1978.
Other notable films that used The Oriental as their ‘headquarters’ included ‘Man with the Golden Gun’ and ‘Killing Fields.’
Stephens is one of the oldest Asia-hands with a rich and colorful past. He has written dozens of travel books as well as non-fiction titles like ‘The Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson’ and ‘Take China: The Last of the China Marines.’
He was guest speaker at last year’s prestigious Sea Write Awards at The Oriental. The gala event honors Southeast Asia’s literary talents.
His new book, published by California-based Wlfenden, includes this very special moment when he was elevated to the same stage that other top speakers had taken.
They included James Michener, Han Suyin, Paul Theroux, William Gilding and Gore Vidal.
Stephens says he first came out to Asia in 1944 as a newly-recruited US Marine who was eager to serve his country.
Born in Pennsylvania, Stephens recalls how his father hated war. “He had fought in all the battles the US took part in World War I.
“He swore his children would never see the battlefields.
“But I was 16 and was eager to fight. In late 1944, when it appeared the war in Europe was ending, my mother thought it was safe for me to enlist.
“She thought I would be back home soon without seeing much fighting.
“So I enlisted fearing that I would miss out on all the action.
“Three months later I’m on a landing craft headed for the beaches of Okinawa. The three-month campaign was the bloodiest and most brutal of the Pacific War.
“The Japanese were fighting to the last man. There was so much death, huge piles of bodies everywhere. There are things we saw and won’t ever talk about.”
Stephens said the critics of the atom bomb do not know what would have happened if the Japanese had not surrendered. To defeat them would have cost many thousands of more lives.
He did not return home after the Japanese surrender but was posted to Tsingtao, China, to repatriate Japanese soldiers.
He left China when the country fell to the Communists in 1949.
He later enrolled at the Foreign Service School in Georgetown University.
He remembers one of his classmates was Jackie Kennedy, who would later become the First Lady.
“She was a regular girl. You wouldn’t think she was special.”
As fate would have it, she would be one of the VIPs at The Oriental and attended a dinner with Edward G. Robinson at the Jim Thompson House.
His adventures continued in Tahiti where he was hired as Marlon Brando’s stand-in for the action sequences in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’
“I got to be close to Brando. I had shelves of books and Brando would come by and ask if he could borrow them.” Stephen soon became part of the film set.
Stephens remembered the Oscar-winning actor as liking to “talk dirty and he could be nasty.”
Off camera, he was a regular guy who drank at Quinn’s and LaFayette, two of Tahiti’s popular bars.
Brando had many wives and romances that often ended disastrously.
“Years later when I anchored my schooner off Malibu, his children would swim up to the boat and sign my guest-book.”
It was this link to Hollywood that made Stephens a familiar face when Hollywood film crews flew into Bangkok and stayed at The Oriental.
And because of the Sea Write awards, he was able to meet and write about literary giants that came through the Kingdom.
His new book has rare photographs of the wave of celebrities who during the Eighties and Nineties made Bangkok the coolest place that housed the Jet Set and Hollywood’s A-List.
World leaders who assembled here included the Sultan of Brunei, King Hussein of Jordan, George Bush senior, Lee Kuan Yew, Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
Ponsri, a second generation of managers at The Oriental came from humble beginnings. Her family were from Hainan.
As for Stephens’ exploits, his book ‘Who Needs a Road?’ tells the story of driving a Toyota Land Cruiser 42,252 miles around the world. It set the record for the longest motor trip.
In ‘The Last Voyage – The Story of Schooner Third Sea’ he tells of building and outfitting a schooner that he sailed for 18 years around the Pacific and Asian waters, including many rivers of Asia.
From aboard Schooner Third Sea he dove on wrecks and discovered HMS Repulse and President Kennedy’s PT-109 but was run out before he could salvage the wrecks.
Top: Ponsri with Elton John at The Oriental.
First inset: Harold Stephens still going strong at 90.
Second inset: The cover of the book ‘At The Oriental.’
Below: Elizabeth Taylor and Malcolm Forbes were long-staying guests at The Oriental.
By Cimi Suchontan